How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita? The tagline for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film version of Lolita said it all. Films and books “inspire, but may provoke”. They thrill but sometimes offend. And often the same artwork attracts both acclaim and condemnation. In modern times, censorship refers to the examination of media including books, periodicals, plays, motion pictures, and television and radio programs for the purpose of altering or suppressing parts thought to be offensive.
The offensive material may be considered immoral or obscene, heretical or blasphemous, seditious or treasonable, or injurious to the national security.” But should one medium be more censored than another? Films are visual creations, whereas novels incorporate the imagination. In the 1930’s, film industry executives formed a strict set of guidelines, the Production Code that governed movie content for twenty years. It stated that nudity and suggestive dances were prohibited.
Criminal activity could not be presented in a way that led viewers to sympathize with criminals. Murder scenes had to avoid inspiring imitation, and brutal killings could not be shown in detail. The sanctity of the marriage and the home had to be upheld. Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option.” So how did Kubrick film a movie based on a story with all of the above?
Movies are rated and restricted to certain viewers whereas books are not. The American Library Association’s guidelines state that “materials should not be excluded because of their origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation…libraries should challenge censorship.” This compared to the $25,000 fines in the 1930’s for theatres that ran films without a PCA seal of approval. This means, libraries are able to carry any book they like, whereas theatres are restricted to which movies are allowed to be shown. The film versions of Lolita were censored more strictly than the book due to ratings that restricted viewers, they were edited, and because of the greater awareness of child abuse in the 1990s.
The 50s was a time when “the raciest sex manual available to the panting adolescent was ‘Love Without Fear’…and even Norman Mailer, in the ‘Naked and the Dead’ had to write ‘fug’ instead of you-know-what.” (Jong) Vladimir Nabakov had just finished writing Lolita in the spring of 1954 and immediately began looking for a publisher. It was first issued in 1955 in Paris after several American rejections.
Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, “condemned by some as a porn king, praised by others as the ‘Lenin of the sexual revolution,’ took on the book when others were too afraid of censorship to try.” (Jong) Lolita was later banned by the French government for two years and retained by U.S. customs, but when it was brought to America three years later it became a “publishing phenomenon, eventually selling some 14 million copies.” (von Busack). Eventually Lolita became a rival for Ulysses as the masterpiece of the 20th Century. “Like most famous literary books, Lolita seduced the world for the wrong reasons. It was thought to be dirty…it won its first passionate proponents by being banned.” (Jong).
Lolita was called pornography by critics who hadn’t even read the book. During its time, Lolita was ” a genuinely new creation and genuinely new creations do not usually fare well…American Puritanism is more comfortable with sex when it stays in the gutter than when it rises to the level of art.” (Jong). But, it was read in all its unedited glory. There were no holes, and it was published just the way Nabakov had written it. The only censorship for novels is in the lack of publishing support. So, overall, the book version of Lolita fared far better than what was to come for its film counterparts.
Like the book, the movie is not especially sexy. Some of the most significant scenes from the book were left out of the 1962 film version because director, Stanley Kubrick feared a denial of a Seal of Approval from the Production Code. In the book, after being picked up from camp, Lolita asks her stepfather, Well, you havent kissed me yet have you? which is followed by Humbert and Los first real kiss, a kiss that, like her goodbye kiss before she left for camp, was induced by her. In Kubricks version, the dialogue of this scene mirrors the text, but the kiss is missing.
Its a small scene, but it should have had a bigger impact. It should be recognized that it was Lolita herself that flowed into Humberts arms and that it was she who pressed her mouth to mine so hard that I felt her big front teeth and shared in the peppermint taste of her saliva. But for those people in the audience who had not read the book, this was not made clear. Not surprisingly, the scene in which Lolita seduces Humbert for the first time at the Enchanted Hunters is reduced to a game, followed by nothing more than a fade out.
It can be argued that “the fact that Humbert and Lolita don’t really do it in this version, except in a fade out, is part of the film’s appeal.” (von Busack) Its classier and it keeps you guessing. But one can also argue that whats left to the imagination can oftentimes be worse than what actually happened. The power of an audiences imagination is in whats left unshown. By watching only this film, the audience does not realize that Lolita was just as much a seducer as a seduce.
A few lines of Lolitas such as I was a daisy-fresh girl, and look what youve done to me. I ought to call the police and tell them youve raped me. and the word is incest, were also left out, because of the implications of sex with not only a minor, but a relative minor. They had to be left out due to PCA regulations. You see, in the 1962 version, it is never truly let known that sex between the two had occurred. You know it happened, you know that it is the entire plot of the book and film, you know it because of all the controversy surrounding it, but its never really verbalized. None of the lines like, we made it up very gently were mentioned in the movie, nor was the fact that Humbert began to pay Lolita for her favors ever touched on.
Lolita can be bought in any book store. I got my copy at Barnes and Noble for $13.00. But when I went to check out Kubricks non rated film version at Blockbuster, the video rental equivalent to books Barnes and Noble, it wasnt there. Instead I had to call around, finally finding it at a smaller, more artsy video store around the corner from my house. This is a perfect example of censorship at its best. One can easily read the book in its explicit detail, but you must search for a copy of a film that lacks the nudity, the violence, and the illicit sex.
The 1990s brought another director, Adrian Lyne, a shot at turning the famous novel into a visual masterpiece. Lyne tackled the film beginning in 1996, but could not find an American distributor, just like Nabakov, and just like Kubrick before him. For his part Lyne believes the failure of Lolita to get U.S. distribution is based on fear. (Butler). The first American screening was finally shown for the first time two years later in Los Angeles. A couple of days before the screening, the press had reported that Lolita’s backers were discussing a straight-to-cable release of their $50 million product with Showtime.
It should be said, flat out, that Lyne’s Lolita is not a movie we need to be protected from. (Butler). So why all the fuss? Its the 90s, isnt it? Havent we been liberated from our past and arent we now strong backers for freedom of speech? The United States has always strongly pretended to back free speech, but when it comes down to it, there are still certain words you cant say on the radio or television, among other issues. So we finally got to read the book, we finally saw the first film version in the 60s, why should there be any problems with Lolita today? Because we now live in a time when six year olds are sent home from school for kissing their classmates.
It is the era of Jon Benet Ramsey and a greater awareness of child abuse. Many distributors have passed on this Lolita, using as a primary excuse the constitutionally dubious 1996 federal law that prohibits showing sexually suggestive acts with children. (Butler) This Child Pornography Act prohibits “any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video image or picture” that is or even “appears to be of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” And Lynes version does in fact have scenes where, Lolita is seen naked in bed with Humbert scrambling to get the money he has just paid her. Yes, it is a body double, but as an audience, we dont know that.
There is no Body double : over 18 flashing across the screen. Their kisses are shown to be passionate. Lolita does stand at the top of the staircase, slowly and seductively unbuttoning her shirt. And there is the rocking chair scene where Lolita is visibly excited while sitting on Humberts lap. But this should all be OK because the people that see this film should be mature enough to distinguish the storyline from the sexuality. As mentioned earlier, the book, which oftentimes goes into more explicit detail is readily available to whomever. But movies have ratings, limiting their viewers.
In turn, a movie should be able to show whatever they want in accordance to what rating they wish to receive and who they wish their audience to be. Lolita received an R: for aberrant sexuality, a strong scene of violence, nudity and some language. Lyne wanted a mature audience, that of seventeen and older, to view his film. And as long as the scenes do not visually show the act of sex between a 14 year old girl and an older man, the other scenes leading up to that should not be purposely left out for those old enough to buy a ticket and mature enough to understand the plot.
Funny how Boogie Nights, a movie about the California porn industry, was released the same year, with the same rating, R, for strong sex scenes with explicit dialogue, nudity, drug use, language and violence and it was actually nominated for, and won, several prestigious awards. This, a film that features high school students, possibly under the age of 18, having sex with an older woman, who has become like a mother to them.
The laws regarding what can and cannot be shown in movies have changed since 1962 and they will continue to do so throughout time. Eventually, its possible that Lynes Lolita, which most closely resembles the novel, will be re-released in theatres without the controversy surrounding it. People will go in and watch the movie, and come out asking themselves what the fuss was all about for so long. They will realize for themselves that it should not be left up to movie distributors to decide what they can see.
Dirks, Tim. Lolita (1962). 1996.
Edmunds, Jeff. Lolita: Complex, often tricky and a hard sell. CNN. 9 April 1999.
Jong, Erica. Summer Reading; Time Has Been Kind To The Nymphet: Lolita 30 Years Later. NY Times. 5 June 1988.
Rolo, Charles. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov. The Atlantic. 1958 September.
Schickel, Richard. Taking a Peek at Lolita. Time.
von Busack, Richard. Lingering Lolita. MetroActive Movies. 27 March 1997.